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Observation Rules

June 2017

Dear Friends ~

In nature, there are all the colors of the rainbow.  Learning to translate those colors is the joy of every artist.  How then do we observe the color white and how do we use it effectively?

In traditional watercolor painting, white is obtained from the white of the watercolor paper rather than from using a white opaque pigment.  White paint, then, is used for tinting other colors, to create lighter tints.  In Botanical Watercolor Painting the white of the paper represents the highest value – the lightest light, but also so does a pale stain of a color.  This “highlight stain” is often used as the “lightest light” and is an important distinction when comparing this genre against other watercolor genres.


This business of “white paper” and “white paint” can be confusing and it is important to understand the best way to use white paint in botanical art.  As a water based medium, white paint can be found in watercolor as Chinese White and Titanium White; and in Gouache as Permanent White.  Gouache is a water-based paint, much like transparent watercolor but made in opaque form. Many antique botanicals were painted with Watercolor or Gouache, and sometimes with Body Color (a mixing of opaque white gouache with transparent watercolor or gouache colors in general).


In botanical paintings, it is most important to observe carefully and capture correctly the “Local Color.”  That is, the actual color of the subject being painted, unmodified by light or shadow.  In botanical paintings that create a three-dimensional perspective, light and shadow is used to form the subject and does in fact alter the color especially when the subject is complex and many layered.  Needless to say it is most important that we “model” our image by representing its color and lighting effects to make it appear three-dimensional without completely altering its true color.


Mixing the local color of our subject involves quite a bit of color analysis and familiarity with our paints.  It is not surprising to take a day carefully observing and working with colors to find the right color palette for a particular painting.  When it comes to matching the color of the subject we may, in fact, find that laying thin washes of colors will build to the desired effect. “Tints” are colors mixed with white.   If the subject demands, we should feel comfortable about including the use of white paint as a means at arriving to our desired color.  In Anne Marie Evans book, An Approach to Botanical Painting she lists Permanent White in her list of suggested colors for the botanical painter.


To be clear about this, white paint is not used to restore highlights.  It can be done, but simply doesn’t work to our best advantage.  By mixing white with color, we find it particularly useful “for depicting hairs, thorns, stamens, leaf-veining and other minutiae of plant life.” (Botanical Illustration in Watercolor by Eleanor Wunderlich, Watson-Guptill 1991.)


In addition to “tinting” these smaller aspects of plant life, Edward Pretty suggests including white when painting our larger subjects.  His book published in 1810 Practical Essay on Flower Painting includes instructions on drawing twenty-four flowers complete with full color renditions and color charts.  For his York and Lancaster Variegated Rose, Pretty instructs the use of Flake White (Lead White poisonous and now replaced by Titanium White).   And for his Rose-Bud, he recommends that “The first tint for the Stalk and Leaves is prepared from Gamboge and white, with the addition of a little Antwerp Blue….and for the Greens, Antwerp Blue, Gamboge, and White, varying them according to the tint required……On the principal Leaf, a few light touches of the Veins are discernible, which is done with White and little Gamboge.”


In Perfect Color Choices for the Artist by Michael Wilcox, he states that “Tints produced by adding white have a valuable contribution to make.”   In my book, Ten Steps – A Course in Botanical Art and Illustration – Watercolor III, Volume 7,  I recommend creating a Color Harmony Chart which helps us first to observe the shifts in color values and then teaches us how to desaturate pigments in our palette with complements and with white.  It is an exercise in learning how far we can go with our paints and how far we can go with white.


Helpful hint:  Use the Chinese White for mixing and tinting, and the Titanium White for adding details in white over a colored background or wash.


Ruskin’s ambition as a teacher was to raise the moral strength and spiritual health of his students by teaching them to see. As he put it: “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin, Lawrence Campbell (Introduction)

The golden rule in botanical art, and perhaps every part of life, is that observation rules!  Learning to see unlocks the gate to many a path.

God bless,


Soul Biz

The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
–   Marcel Proust

Colours change: in the morning light, red shines out bright and clear and the blues merge into their surroundings, melting into the greens; but by the evening the reds lose their piquancy, embracing a quieter tone and shifting toward the blues in the rainbow. Yellow flowers remain bright, and white ones become luminous, shining like ghostly figures against a darkening green background.
–  Rosemary Verey, The Scented Garden, 1981

My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.
   H. Fred Ale  

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.
–   Henry David Thoreau  


One Response to “Observation Rules”

  1. Pat Frost says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Looking forward to working with watercolors.